Gyeongju: Shilla’s Thousand Year Capital

Updated on December 14, 2018
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Dr. David Thiessen spent almost 1 year in Gyeongju teaching at a private institute. He toured the sites he has written about many times.

Some of the Tombs of Gyeongju
Some of the Tombs of Gyeongju

Gyeongju is probably the most visited city after Seoul. It was the heart and soul of the Shilla kingdom for a thousand years, and it has the tombs to prove it. This beautiful city is nestled in some quaint hills and surrounded by a few mountains. But then where can you go in Korea that is not surrounded by mountains?

A side trip to this city is well worth the time. The only trouble you will have is trying to see all that it has to offer in a few short days. You will not run out of things to do when you visit Gyeongju.

Here is a list of things you can do while taking some time to see this grand old city.

The Tombs

You will think they are everywhere. Coming into the city from the west, you will see the first royal tombs. As you drive further and before you cross the river, you can turn north and see an old general’s tomb. After that, stop and continue into the downtown core, where you will find the majority of the royal tombs.

The royal tombs are one of the biggest draws Gyeongju has, not just because they are famous, but because they are huge. A few can reach about five stories high while housing only one body. At the most, the tombs house two, when the queen is included.

By the time you leave Gyeongju, you will be tired of tombs.

The Ancient Observatory

In the downtown tourist area, not far from the national museum, you will find the 5,000-year-old home of ancient astronomers. The small building still stands today as it did then. We can only imagine the beauty those ancient astronomers saw, as the modern city lights block a lot of the night sky today.

The observatory is not far from the downtown tombs, inside a nice park full of family activities. You can take a relaxing walk or take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage to view the surrounding park. The park is located on the site of an old Buddhist temple, long since destroyed.

There are other attractions at the park to entertain the whole family. The last time we were there, horseback riding, archery and just seeing the old ice house were some of the things you could do to enjoy the day.

Gyeongju Bread

Some people will say that a visit to the city is not complete unless you buy some Gyeongju bread. This is the city’s trademark after the tombs and the observatory. Most of the bread makers are across the parking lot between the downtown tombs and the ancient observatory.

This popular Korean delicacy is not like any other bread you have had.

Hiking on Namsan

It just may be that tombs, bread and ancient astronomy are not your thing. If you are an outdoor enthusiast and like hiking in the fresh air, then Namsan mountain is the place to go.

It is a mountain full of trails where you can experience the wonderful Korean wilderness in perfect safety. Korea is one of the safest countries in the world.

Anapji Picnic

Just past the ancient observatory are the Shilla king’s playground and picnic area. You can have a modern picnic where Korean royals passed their idle hours. The traditional buildings, the fish-filled pools, the trees and the well-kept grass make this a picture-perfect spot to have a nice lunch of Gyeongju bread, kimbap and dokboki.

The only thing to do at Anapji is to relax, walk around and take as many pictures as you want. You can feel like an ancient Shilla king, Queen or member of their court.

Bulguksa Temple

It is a beautiful drive to this world-famous temple. It was originally destroyed by the Japanese in the 16th century when they invaded Korea. But it was rebuilt over the centuries and has become a great tourist attraction.

You can wander freely through the grounds, take in the sites that the Buddhist monks have to offer, see their lifestyle, marvel at the architecture, buy souvenirs or just have a nice lunch on the grounds below the temple.

Seroksan Carved Buddha

Bulguksa is only halfway up the mountain. To visit Seroksan, you must drive the rest of the way up. The road is filled with sharp switchbacks, but the view is outstanding.

Besides the great view, Seroksan’s claim to fame is the carved Buddha. Once you get to the entrance, it is a bit of a hike to get to, but the natural surroundings and fresh air are good for you. The Buddha is now protected by a glass wall and a building that surrounds the rock it was carved on.

If you are lucky, you can ring the traditional bell that is housed in a traditional building outside the gate that leads to the carved Buddha. Or you can buy souvenirs at the shop owned by my former student. It is at the entrance to the trail.

Some Final Words

These places are just the tip of the iceberg for things to see and do in Gyeongju. As we said, you will run out of time before you run out of things to do. Other notable mentions are the underwater tomb, a few miles east. This tomb is the only one built in water and it takes about a half-hour or so to drive to it.

Then there is the national museum just a block from Anapji. The national museum has three buildings where you can see ancient Shilla treasures and other exhibits. It is not possible to list all the things you can do in this city.

If you get to Korea, Gyeongju has to be one of your stops. It is history.

© 2018 David Thiessen

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    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      17 months ago from UK

      You make a compelling case for visiting Gyeong-ju.

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